Damage to your property can often be a traumatic, trying experience, especially when it's due to someone else’s negligence or recklessness. Thankfully, the law provides remedies to alleviate some of your distress. One popular avenue is to file a civil lawsuit in a state court for damages.
Check Your Jurisdiction's Rules
First, determine where your case should be heard. There's a limit on the amount of damages you can seek in small claims court in many states, so determine the appropriate court for your lawsuit before you go through any of the remaining steps. Also check to ensure that your lawsuit falls within the deadline, or statute of limitations, for your case to be heard.
Assess Your Property Damage
Document everything that occurred before, during and after your property was damaged as soon as possible after you notice the damage. Take pictures, if you can, as soon as you can. Have the property appraised or provide proof of the value of your property.
Gather Your Evidence
Gather all relevant evidence in your case. This includes any email and/or text correspondence between you and the party you're suing. If you spoke to the opposing party at some point during the process, before they had access to your property, while they had access to your property, or after the damage to your property occurred, make note of these conversations in a journal or on a personal device.
These notes will help you develop a narrative when you're ready to file your suit. Ultimately, you will need as much evidence as possible to prove the damages you suffered.
Filing the Small Claims Lawsuit
You can go ahead and start the process when you've determined that your case qualifies to be heard in small claims court because it doesn't exceed the maximum amount of allowable damages and that the statute of limitations is still running. The actual process differs from court to court, but the basics are usually the same. Gather all your evidence and documentation, then physically go to the courthouse.
Typically, you'll have to fill out a form identifying the other party. Make sure you have the party's correct address so a summons demanding that they appear can be served on them. The filing documents describe the damages you suffered and the amount of damages you're seeking. Be prepared to pay a small fee to file your suit. This will cover some of the costs of serving the other party.
You can look up the party's information with a simple search on the secretary of state's website if you don't know the address and if it's a corporation,
If Your Damages Exceed the Maximum
You might have to file in the next highest court in your jurisdiction, which is typically a Superior Court, if your damages exceed the maximum allowed by your local small claims court. You'll still need all the same evidence and data as you would for small claims court. Your case will still be subject to a statute of limitations, but to a higher cap on damages. The main difference here is that you'll likely need to consult with an attorney if you want to proceed in Superior Court.
Read More: How Are Damages Figured in Small Claims Court?
Most property damage cases are heard in small claims courts, but it depends on the amount of damages being sought.
Melissa McCall is an accomplished lawyer, science journalist and legal analyst. She graduated cum laude from Syracuse University in 2003 and spent two years as a Judicial Law Clerk, followed by 2 years at a general litigation firm and a brief stint as the Director of Environmental Protection for the Virgin Islands. Since leaving the US Virgin Islands, she has worked as a legal recruiter, legal writer and legal analyst.